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V3I1: Managing Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis

By: Marc A. Johnson, President, University of Nevada, Reno

The University of Nevada, Reno has a 146-year history. During this time, university leaders have dealt with wars, depressions and recessions, and pandemics. Some of these events decimated enrollment and many caused large reductions in governmental support. Yet the University continues to thrive today, stronger than at any time in the past. During the deep recession of 2009-12, I said, “We will manage to get through this downturn and we still will be a university one hundred years from now.” I say the same today during the COVID-19 pandemic with significant state budget reductions and only slightly reduced enrollment.

The first important principle is to manage to a future vision of sustainability for mission fulfillment. Different challenges require different approaches, but leaders know pretty well the facility and staffing patterns that will sustain the ability of the institution to fulfill its missions under “normal” circumstances. These patterns serve as the target for short-term crisis management. Terminate projects and personnel which do not contribute significantly to the future target; postpone and keep intact projects, personnel and vacant positions which are important to the institution as the crisis abates. At the University of Nevada, Reno during the deep recession, we terminated departments, programs and personnel, including tenured professors, in programs still absent today. The University kept programs and units, even on hiatus, to protect the basic programs and functions which best fulfilled missions. Those programs have been restored and deepened over the last decade. In the current time, while some positions have been terminated, the University has not identified programs to terminate. So, the university is operating with many vacancies in faculty and staff positions, but the infrastructure remains in place because our future vision of ways to fulfill missions has not changed; we are keeping the infrastructure in place to be filled out in better economic times.

A second important principle is to remain flexible to modify operations in response to opportunities to capture greatest possible revenues during the downturn. With the good fortune of living in a time with electronic meeting technologies, enrollment has softened only slightly. As unemployment has soared many students cannot afford to be resident on their campuses. While the University of Nevada, Reno is offering as much in-person instruction as possible with social distancing requirements, much instruction has been converted to hybrid delivery with some students in the classroom and some at their residence with simultaneous electronic participation. Since class design and social distancing required hybrid delivery, students are offered the option to take classes wholly in a remote fashion rather than alternating in and out of class. As a result, the University has enrolled some students in fully remote class schedules, which has allowed some students to “return” for fall term from their residences in Sacramento, Las Vegas, or Belgium. This flexibility has sustained enrollment and credit-based state and student revenue.

After the 2009-12 recession, the university developed alternative, on-line degree options focused in topical areas with existing faculty depth. These programs generated regular fee revenues which more than covered “marginal cost” due to the presence of faculty with a breadth of expertise in these fields. Flexibility to find additional markets for existing expertise has generated significant net revenue.

Flexibility has allowed the research enterprise to continue almost unabated. Research faculty were allowed to continue laboratory operations by adopting mandated social distancing, facial coverings and disinfecting protocols. Researchers submitted proposals for research continuity in ways which met state mandates. Most were approved immediately and research productivity continues along with proposal writing, project completion, and research revenues very similar to the pre-COVID time.

Community outreach programs have continued as well, and new restrictions have shown the efficacy of alternative methods. Master gardeners in Cooperative Extension have developed protocols of social distancing, bringing tools from home, wearing facial coverings and practicing good hygiene. Gardeners did not miss a season due to COVID. Child and Family training programs continue with the use of zoom technology which actually has resulted in increased participation with simultaneous, multi-site delivery – this is a discovery which may be practiced long after the pandemic subsides.

Flexibility and creativity on the part of all university employees have sustained a high level of productivity on mission-central education, discovery and community engagement. Hundreds of faculty took time from the summer break to take training in effective remote teaching technologies. Work plans have been converted to a capability of moving all remote on short notice if necessary. The basic personnel and facility infrastructure describing the university in 2022 and 2023 remains in place, though with many short-term vacancies. Since all mission operations continue, only state revenue losses are significant. Already, the University is developing a list of priority vacancies to fill as soon as a hint of state funding potential occurs.


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